Have you heard of ‘smart dust’? I thought not. You probably know about 3D printing, but what about 4D printing? Or neuromorphic hardware? If you haven’t heard about them now then you might in the not too distant future, as they could be the next technologies in the world of smart computing that will turn our world upside down.
Every year, tech research firm Gartner produces its Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, distilling over 2,000 new innovations into a list of 30 or so that could have the greatest impact in the future.
It tracks these innovations up a curve towards the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ then their descent into the ‘trough of disillusionment’, their subsequent climb up the ‘slope of enlightenment’ before finally reaching the ‘plateau of productivity’.
Essentially, every new technology has a similar life cycle – first it is hailed as the next big thing, before doubts are raised about its effectiveness and it is then widely derided, prompting many to dismiss it, before an intrepid few begin to use it and recognise its value at which point it is lauded as being the real deal. Obviously, not all of them make it that far – many are consigned to what you could call ‘the dustbin of obsolescence’.
SMEs don’t need to follow the ups and downs of every new innovation, but there are a few that are set to affect your business – if they haven’t already, whether or not you’re aware of it.
Although it has been around for some time, Blockchain technology came to public attention because it facilitates Bitcoin. Although Bitcoin rapidly earned a notorious reputation, as the online currency often used by hackers and drug dealers, Blockchain has enormous potential for all kinds of businesses.
Just as Napster broke the music industry and then all but disappeared, leaving others to follow on and reap the benefit, so it is with Bitcoin and its underlying technology.
Essentially, blockchain is a ‘digital ledger’ with transactions that cannot be repudiated. It is created by and residing on a disparate network of computers. Once a deal is confirmed, the relevant data is put into a ‘block’, which is encrypted into a chronological ‘chain’ that is then verified by the other computers on that network. Once every computer concurs, the transaction is entered into the ledger.
Because that ledger is not held on one central database, but on multiple computers across the world, it is nigh impossible for hackers to tamper with. Blockchain will therefore have a profound effect on cybersecurity in the era of Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT), while it could improve the accuracy and reliability of new programmes and products by offering a system to record and verify each stage in their development.
Most high street banks are already looking into whether they could use a version of Blockchain to secure and speed up – and therefore cut the cost of – the process of moving money around the world, so that an overseas transaction could be as simple and quick as sending a text. Barclays has already delivered systems using this radical new approach.
There are now companies offering coding engines already built on this tech, with ‘easy plugins’ to enable new systems to be built with state-of-the-art resilience and security.
Banks are desperately trying to keep up with the Bitcoin revolution in finance, but it isn’t the only industry that Blockchain technology could turn upside down. By offering transparent, secure technology on which to base a peer-to-peer network, Blockchain could potentially cut out the middleman in many industries. If your business is acting as an intermediary then my advice would be to find out more about Blockchain and how it might potentially disrupt your market.
To my mind, the key issue for small businesses is to realise that you may well soon be in a supply chain that is using Blockchain. Your suppliers and clients don’t need to ask your permission to write their systems this way, do they? Or your bank is using it because it makes sense to develop their systems that way. Before you even know about it – you’re in it!
Blockchain might be one of those unchosen-but-widely-adopted innovations making progress in years to come, but Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine-to-Machine (M2M) are two technologies upon which we already rely, whether or not you like it – or know it.
Whether you seize the initiative could have profound consequences on your business, because, in some circumstances, you will have no choice in adopting these innovations, because other companies with which you do business will already use them.
Take AI, for example. Stephen Hawking recently said AI might be the best or worst thing to ever happen to humanity, but it is already well and truly here. AI software is now being widely used to try to predict what we want to know, to do, and to buy.
Alan Turing didn’t really envisage the potential monster that this thing could become, he simply defined what it would be to be classed as a ‘thinking machine’.
Enter a query into Google’s search engine, Facebook’s face-recognition software, the Siri or Cortana personal assistants on your phones and they will all use a form of AI to give you an answer. It’s also increasingly being used in heavyweight computing systems, such as IBM’s Watson technology. Soon, every major computing vendor will offer an AI programme.
Machine-to-Machine/Internet of Things
If AI is what is used to generate the information, then it is M2M (indistinguishable in my head from IoT as it is the technology to exchange information between machines) that is used to transmit that information and turn that into a command to be executed.
AI, M2M and IoT have all been around for more than 20 years, but are now gaining prominence – bearing out Gartner’s assertion that technologies will often take many years from their creation before they are widely adopted. But they are now being integrated in many industries to create seamless (and unseen) services.
As a simple example, I browse on Amazon for some new golf clubs. It suggests a particular brand that it knows I like, using its AI software based on my previous searches and orders. When I click ‘buy’ a message is sent to its warehouse via M2M telling a robot to take those particular clubs off the shelf and prepare them for shipment to me. A courier firm will then be instructed to deliver them to me (again via M2M), and I can monitor the progress of my order almost to the exact minute when the courier will knock on my door thanks to IoT tech-enabled devices. It might not be too long before a drone delivers my order – another technology named in the Gartner report.
That’s one very hi-tech firm using all three technologies in one process, it’s true, but don’t forget how Amazon has transformed the way in which we shop. And don’t forget just after the e-commerce bubble burst in the early 2000s, Amazon was being derided as having no future.
Now, virtually every other retail enterprise has been forced to follow its model to some degree. There are plenty of other examples of companies large and small using these innovations, individually or together, to get a leg up over their rivals. You’ve got a few years to work out what ‘smart dust’ is and how it could help your business, but Blockchain, AI, M2M and IoT are here now. I suggest that you understand them – at least enough to know if they are likely to put a ball and chain through your business model.